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61% of Rail Union Shoots Down Contract

The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS) on Wednesday became the third union to reject their contract as fears mount once again of a possible rail strike if workers and carriers can’t see eye to eye on the sticking point of paid sick time off.  

The BRS was one of three holdout unions that struck eleventh-hour tentative deals announced Sept. 15. The pending agreements staved off a national rail strike carriers, shippers, freight forwarders and trucking companies braced for in the days just before both sides worked out a contract to be put up for a worker vote. 

BRS represents 7,300 employees, or about 6 percent of the total rail workforce involved in the current collective bargaining round which started in 2020. 

“For the first time that I can remember, the BRS members voted not to ratify a national agreement, and with the highest participation rate in BRS history,” the union’s president Michael Baldwin said in a statement Wednesday. “I have expressed my disappointment throughout the process in the lack of good-faith bargaining on the part of the NCCC [National Carriers’ Conference Committee], as well as the part PEB 250 [Presidential Emergency Board] played in denying BRS members the basic right of paid time off for illness.” 

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Nearly 61 percent of BRS members voted against ratifying the deal. 

“The NCCC and PEB also both failed to recognize the safety-sensitive and highly stressful job BRS members perform each day to keep the railroad running and supply chain flowing,” Baldwin went on to say, pointing out workers continued to work through the pandemic. 

The tentative agreement BRS members rejected included a 24 percent compounded wage increase over the 2020 through 2024 contract term and no changes to the healthcare package. 

The NCCC, which represents the railroads, expressed “disappointment” in the vote. It went on to say Wednesday the vote results are “delaying the benefits” of the tentative agreement, “further extending resolution of the bargaining round with BRS.” 

NCCC criticized the reason for the no-vote on the contract related to paid sick time, arguing “the vast majority of BRS members work predictable schedules and all have access to time off. Like other rail employees, they can and do take time off for sickness and already have paid sickness benefits beginning after four days of illness-related absence and extending for up to a year. The structure of these benefits is a function of decades of bargaining where the unions have repeatedly agreed that short-term absences would be unpaid in favor of higher compensation for days worked and more generous sickness benefits for longer absences.” 

The union agreed it would not strike during what is referred to as a status quo period as both sides resume negotiations. That period ends in early December, raising the possibility of a strike. 

To date, six of the dozen unions involved in negotiations have ratified their contracts. 

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) said earlier this month its members also rejected the tentative deal before them, citing the issue of paid sick time off. BMWED is one of the larger unions involved in negotiations, representing 23,900 workers, or 19 percent of the total group. The NCCC said last week carriers will reject the union’s new proposal.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) were the first to reject their contract, with a new tentative deal worked out in late September that must go back to members for a vote. 

The tentative deals all used recommendations made by the PEB established by President Biden in the summer as a basis for the contracts. The PEB was seen as one of the final steps in helping the two sides reach agreements in the extended negotiations.